Monthly Archives: October 2008

Kvetch of the Week, Halloween edition

Never been much of a fan of holidays — or more precisely, the excess to which we’re forced to celebrate them in American culture — so be warned that my least favorite time of the year is almost here.

What makes it even worse is that retailers, card-makers, toy companies, etc., don’t even wait to Halloween to start dumping their junk in the stores. Can’t even go looking for candy to hand out to the costumed lil’ varmints in the neighborhood without stumbling across boxes of Christmas cards and the “gift idea” racks. Humbug, I say.

At least I’m not alone in my assertion that “they are sucking the fun out of Halloween,” which is this week’s Kvetch of the Week:

“Unfortunately, this holiday is quickly turning into the same mess that Christmas has become. The advertising begins earlier and earlier every year with ‘must have’ items featured tantilizingly for your children to whine about. The glut of candy available is almost as sickening as the displays for Christmas along with a revolting array of home decorating items.”

Bah humbug!

More reasons to kvetch about Halloween: Bruce Springsteen has written a song about it, political wackos use it to hang candidates in effigy, and law enforcement agencies require sex offenders to post “No Candy” signs on their doors so they won’t get too close to kiddies.

Isn’t this all a bit much for a supposedly minor, pagan holiday?

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Halloween Friday free for all links

No tricks, just some treats from my online reading pile, with no particular theme in mind and in no particular order of importance:

• Inc. magazine has profiled Kevin Rose, the founder of the highly popular Digg user-generated news site, calling him “The Most Famous Man on the Internet.” The new media elites who follow him intensely are much more celebratory than that:

“There’s the next Rupert Murdoch . . . “He’s the media mogul of the future.”

But Rose started out humbly, with $1,200 in his pocket and an idea of individuals finding news of interest to them, submitting it on a social media site to share with others, who collectively determine its popularity:

“Today, the website of nearly every large media outlet — including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Fox News — has a Digg button, a little advertisement that encourages readers to submit stories to Rose’s website. When Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation bought the Journal last year, one of its first moves was to cut a deal with Digg by which the paper’s online edition, for which the company normally charges $89 a year, would be made available to Digg users free of charge.

Now that’s influence — when the present-day Rupert Murdoch is eager to do business with his supposed mogul-in-waiting. It’s a testament to how dramatically Digg’s model has altered the dissemination of news and information. Read the rest of the story. Here’s more on Rose by a Silicon Valley site that seemingly follows his every move.

• With the economy a very hot topic, a Digg-like site has been launched. Tip’d labels itself as “a financial community for financial news, tips and ideas.” It’s also been dubbed “a timely Digg clone.”

• Another new media star, paidContent.org founder Rafat Ali, says now’s the time to become a journalist entrepreneur:

“This is probably the best time in history to be a journalist. I know there’s a lot of fear in the industry with all the layoffs and it’s hard to look beyond 2009, but the reality is that the craft of journalism and the need for it is the highest than any time in history…”

• Netscape founder Mark Andreesen, whose most recent venture is the creation of Ning.com, which allows individuals and groups to form their own social media sites, this week suggested that some newspaper companiess just ought to pull the plug on their print editions for good. Web maven and Salon.com co-founder Scott Rosenberg says that ain’t happenin’:

“Newspaper companies are clinging to their dwindling print profits because they can’t yet see a way to keep anything close to their current pay scale and benefits in an online-only world. And the hardest pill for the industry to swallow is that there may not be any way to do that.

• The gay-oriented magazine Out.com takes notice of the numbers of gay male political reporters on the campaign trail:

“ ‘I think that the theater of politics is of real interest to political reporters,’ says one of them. ‘And a lot of gay reporters are theater junkies as well. The candidates are divas, larger-than-life personalities, and I think there’s a definite appreciation for those characters.’ What was never-give-up Hillary, after all, if not an electoral Mama Rose?'”

What a hoot! “Our Boys on the Bus” beats the hell out of any other story I’ve read about the political media during this season. The rest of it is a bit more serious, but I just found it a really fun read.

Anybody want to buy a journalist?

The dizzying amount of media layoffs and shutdowns in the last week rendered a casualty that escaped my attention until just now — Ana Marie Cox of the recently shuttered Radar magazine. The political journalist who earned her initial fame as the snarky D.C. blogger Wonkette still has a place on the McCain campaign plane. But she’s asking her audience to finance her travel for just a few more days:

“It will cost about $1500 to cover just the last day of the campaign, and over $1000 a day for each day leading up to it. While I still blog for TIME’s ‘Swampland’ — and I will for as long as they let me! — I am without a source for travel funds. So, you know, anyone interested in sponsoring a foul-mouthed blogger, slightly used?”

Wanna help her out? Here’s what she calls her rate card. Seems like she’s going to get enough to take her to Phoenix for election night and back. “Pledge drives” are nothing new in the blogosphere, and individuals who’ve successfully banged the tin cup have tended to be high-profile figures who might more easily command it.

Message to displaced journalists: Don’t think of this as shameless begging. Think of it as a much more up-front kind of résumé. An approach to continue doing the work that you love. A way to find out how much your readers really value what you write.

The practice of crowdfunding journalism — another advocate of this concept calls it “representative journalism” — is likely to increase. And plucky startups like this one might gain some more imitators. Especially with more and more journalists joining our ranks every day.

Shaking off the newspaper shakedown

More links from the newsaper/print death rattle that’s clanking a bit louder these days:

• Time is going to cut 600 jobs through layoffs and will undergo a massive overhaul in its magazine division.

• The transformation of the Christian Science Monitor to a mostly online edition will be closely watched to see whether “a paper has to be on paper.” But for most newspaper companies, maintaining a print product is essential to staying in business.

• A veteran media reporter laments the decline of “old” media. So does a young journalism student ready to step into the profession and who’s seriously worried about how democracy will fare in the midst of this newspaper shakedown.

I post these not to pile on to the gloomy mood that’s percolating among journalists and in the newspaper industry, but to illustrate the necessity of embracing new ways of thinking about, and doing, the news. Those are no less troublesome and challenging but as I wrote yesterday, there really isn’t much choice but to forge ahead.

• The founder of a celebrated Twin Cities-area news website, staffed primarily by laid-off and bought-out newsaper journalists, is frank about the prospects for the success of his editorial and business model:

“At the national and international level, some good will come out of this, because of the way the Web favors national and international coverage. I’m more worried about the local and regional levels. And it’s why I think there’s going to be need for non-profit journalism at the local level. The dynamic of the Web is not very favorable to spending money at the local level.”

• A young web journalist/entrepreneur urges starting small with a news venture and creating it with community, an intended audience, in mind, and being fearless about breaking free from past conventions:

“Journalists and journalism right now is a diaspora, we’re sort of been kicked out of the homeland of newspapers, and we need to figure out where we can go from here.”

More labored breathing for ailing newspapers

I go offline for just a couple of hours and I arrive to more scathing news about the newspaper business and the journalists who work in them:

• Gannett will be letting go of another 3,000 editorial employees across the chain, or 10 percent of its newsroom personnel, by December. Seasons Greetings, folks. This on top of 1,000 cuts made earlier this year. But the staff at USA Today apparently will be untouched.

Read the long, sad, heart-wrenching comments at the end of this post, and take a good look around the Gannett Blog. It’s written by a former Gannetteer who took a buyout and who gets plenty of news tips and leads to make this a vibrant, must-read site about what’s happening inside the nation’s largest newspaper company.

• The Christian Science Monitor announced it will no longer publish a daily print edition after 100 years. It will switch to a weekly Sunday print edition and bolster its website. No decision has been made on how many of its 100 journalists will be affected.

A newspaper analyst says: “We are seeing the amazing shrinkage of the U.S. press.”

• Could it be the first of more print-to-online switches for mainstream papers? Maybe. Well, not so fast there. The Monitor will save $4 million in expenses but also stands to lose $5 million in income. (It receives a $7 million annual subsidy from the Christian Science church.) That’s the truly awful dilemma, since print revenues still feed the beast at newspaper companies:

“It’s no longer a theoretical question: by 2015, I believe we’ll be living in a mainly digital/a little print world. There are six long years between now and then and the transition means everything to the readers, the journalists and the apparently reinvigorated democracy unfolding before us.”

Online news startups grow, tackle tough odds

Online Journalism Review this week is taking an in-depth look at the growth of independent local news websites, asking the critical, but thus far unanswerable, questions about their possibilities:

“Might someday we look back at this moment and see in sites like Voice of San Diego and the New Haven (Conn.) Independent the birthplace of a new kind of journalism that would find its Web financial moorings? Or will the Internet dynamic of fragmentation work against the newspaper model of presenting a grab-bag compendium of community interests?

This is a good overview of what’s happening in metro areas throughout the country. But be sure to read the Q and A toward the bottom with the co-executive editors of Voice of San Diego, which has led the way after being founded nearly three years ago. Like many sites that have followed in its wake, it has been led by and featured the work of journalists who’ve been shed from mainstream newspapers.

And like the others, it hasn’t tried to be all things to all readers. Finding a local news niche has been the driving force behind these startups. Most of them, unsurprisingly, skew toward local policy, politics and government news and issues.

The budget remains tight and compensation to journalists remains low — there aren’t a lot of full-time jobs here — but keep this in mind:

“One thing we’re noticing is a lot of people think there’s a technological answer to what’s happening in journalism. I don’t think what we’re facing is a technological problem. We contribute greatly to this community without every having a fulltime IT person. We’re going to see more aggregators. But the people who put money into content are going to stand out, and that’s why we’re excited about this alliance for other nonprofits.”

Translation to displaced journalists who don’t have the sharpest Web skills: Relax. By all means, do learn to understand digital media and how it differs from the print editorial product you’ve been used to most of your careers. But the basics of good journalism apply to all platforms:

“We push our reporters to report so well that they write with authority. There’s never writing with an agenda, but we do feel writing with authority is the way to go.”

Read the entire piece, which summarizes other sites in other cites and regions in the country. Some will be profiled by OJR during the week.

While the business models for such enterprises are still in their infancy, what about maintstream media outlets that continue to dump their journalists? The Los Angeles Times has laid off 75 more in its newsroom, and may not be close to being finished cutting staff.

Last week in New York, assorted online entrepreneurs and journalism futurists gathered to show and tell their ideas on new business models for the news. The conclusion: We don’t know what’s going to work out, but it’s imperative to keep plugging away.

Despite the challenges, and especially given the economic times, there are still plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about the future of journalism. Taking the long view is imperative. For many of us in middle age or refocusing our journalism work after leaving newsrooms, this experimenting will last the rest of our careers.

Feeling fortunate in times of trouble

A Wall Street investment banker laid off and already in a substantial period of transition into what she hopes will be a new career in non-profits is welcoming the change as an opportunity to shift gears, refreshed. She writes in The New York Times on Sunday:

“The process has not been linear, but after months of being jobless, I am focused on keeping up a discipline day by day: extending my network of contacts, investigating organizations and jobs online, carefully tracking my appointments, following up on leads and meeting recruiters who specialize in this field.

“My outplacement counselor says that finding a job is a numbers game and that it will take time, as I am not a traditional candidate for many nonprofit jobs. The job won’t find me, and I have to make the case for how I could make a contribution. Renewed by rest, my confidence bolstered by the generosity of people I meet, I feel energized, eager to start a new career, and open to possibility.”

I recognize how fortunate she and those of us who’ve taken generous newspaper buyouts are as the economy nosedives further into what already may be a recession. In the same Sunday Times business section is a harrowing account of newly laid-off workers at a General Motors SUV assembly plant in a small Wisconsin town. The whole plant, now employing the remaining 1,200 of a workforce that once was 5,000, is to be shut down.

Smashing prosperity, this was, with no inkling that it could all be gone in a flash, as fuel prices skyrocketed and heavy, gas-guzzling vehicles were rendered virtually worthless. GM executives and workers alike expressed shock. They didn’t see any of this coming.

This is heartbreaking stuff, to see so many folks suffering at the shortsightedness of a major company (and its workers) who thought the good times would never end. The same mindset prevailed in the banking and home mortgage industries, triggering a potential calamity that has already plunged the global economy into chaos and . . . well, you know the rest.

Yes, I am fortunate, as I write this in an early stage of a lengthy buyout period, preparing for a journalism retraining workshop and working with a career coach for some one-on-one help in marketing my future.

Right now the short-term future, at least, doesn’t look so promising for many, many people thrown out of work, voluntarily or otherwise. In my former industry, the picture is getting bleaker.

Newspaper circulation declines haven’t just dropped: they’re on the verge of cratering, and are getting worse. My former paper had the biggest decrease in daily circulation among the top 25 American papers. On Sundays, not so much.

The august New York Times, which is still able to do the kind of national and international journalism that metro dailies are abandoning, last week announced a 51 percent drop in third quarter earnings.

Newspaper job cuts this year have thrust into five figures, at nearly 13,000 and counting. Add to that an estimated 40 percent of the newsroom staff at the Newark Star-Ledger, or about 150 more journalists before the end of the year. Happy Holidays.

But again, please keep all this in perspective. Since mid-September, nearly 20,000 tech workers have gotten the boot, with very few buyouts. And thousands more likely will lose their jobs as 2008 comes to a close. The high-profile CEO of one Silicon Valley startup pens a gut-wrenching memo to his peers on the best way to do layoffs humanely. And he let go of just eight people.

As bad as matters are for newspapers — and 2009 may be even gloomier — they could be a whole lot worse for journalists. A whole lot.